The sad passions

Vic Seidler – Making Sense of Brexit (Polity)

Everyone should read this book.

Seidler writes of the moment during the referendum campaign when it became clear that ‘people across the country had just stopped listening’. It comes up some pages later, where ‘stopped listening’ is italicised again.

It stuck in my head all the way through the book and so I will repeat it for you in this review: People ‘had stopped listening’. The repeated instances seemed important, as though historical amnesia might have affected everyone and only via repetition might we wake.

This book has the tone of the late great Zygmunt Bauman, without necessarily following his themes or style directly. This ‘tone’ seems to run parallel to the book’s ability to see into the dimensions of the subject that have always been there, but have been almost literally unspeakable. This is a key strength of Bauman’s writing – as it is here – and the book is dedicated to his memory.

Bauman’s memory. If the people have fallen into amnesia we have Bauman’s memory. We need Bauman’s memory more than ever. Seidler clearly remembers Bauman.

Seidler’s perspective of the situation of ‘Brexit’ as a western one and not just a local British political squabble is strong: Brexit is interwoven with the election of Trump – a close won thing, as was Vote Leave – and these are not facile comparisons.

The xenophobia of the Leave campaign is mirrored in Hungary and Orbán, in Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders and the German AfD, the ‘alternative for Germany’, subtitled “there is no alternative”.

What is happening here is happening in and to the west as a whole. This is the wider terrifying dimension of the subject. It is bleak and mad and all the warnings from history are there in plain sight and yet still it seems to be happening. It feels like the slow motion horrors that occur when dreaming.

You are powerless to stop them, you can only watch as your own body is slowly puppeted through the madness.

Similarly, the logical flaws and gaps here – for instance in the alternative for which there is no alternative – are not anomalies to be smoothed over, but the places to begin to research the subject.

What we are seeing is the final disintegration of the post-WW2 settlement. This cannot be in doubt: Corbyn is as sceptical about NATO as Trump. Seidler returns to Trump’s ‘mistake’, when he proclaimed the enemy in ‘radical Islamic terrorism’, not ‘radical Islamist terrorism’. Again, these slips, ‘parapraxes’ as Freud named them, are not the places to change the subject, but the place where the subject starts.

Viewed one way, Trump’s climate change denial is simply a badge declaring his belief in it. The terrifying future that opens up here is all of what we are witnessing now, plus higher sea levels. World peace will not suddenly descend like a dove bearing an olive branch.

Theresa May is seeking to reach out to the US-UK ‘special relationship’ in an era when Trump is trying to turn America even further inwards. Seidler marks these longer historical changes well, between Kennedy and the US’s ambitions to police the global scene after WW2 and Trump’s quixotic ambivalence.

Old certainties are being reached for and empty air grasped. Seidler really conveys the sense of this without trying to be a prophet, or hammer out a correct line: This is a real strength.

Britain’s isolation could be felt acutely when the Russian attacks on Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury were being reported. Suddenly, as we exit the EU, here was a different prospect entirely, even with the Litvinenko poisoning behind us.

Turning to America is a desperate and hollow prospect right now and Seidler marks this well. He goes back to Bauman on how people look for ‘magic’ in leadership – the example in Britain of course now being Corbyn – but because of this almost spiritual expectation they will inevitably be disappointed.

The book effortlessly deals with the immediate moment of crisis and the longer historical curves leading up to it.

A peculiar view has arisen over the last two decades that Labour and Conservative are all the same. As one far right attendee to a Higher Education project I am involved with pointed out, for him Labour and Tories are both leftwing, but UKIP aren’t rightwing enough.

The spatial geographical political metaphors have been scrambled. The compass you used to use works as it always did in some places, but in others only intermittently.

Two decades of mainstream political chicanery have led to this scrambling of any sense of a political true north. We have both Boris and Blair to thank for their blatant lies and as I write the attempt to stop a dictator murdering his people with chemical weapons is being made more difficult by Blair’s legacy of deviousness, and it is often being argued against by the same left who say Britain should have been in Spain in the 1930s.

But what Seidler brings to the subject that many commentators don’t is a view of maps and compasses as they might be seen by refugees from these genocides.

So, not only does this book contain the perspective that what is happening to ‘us’ in Britain is happening in the west more widely, but that this is also completely connected to the conflicts in the middle east. Seidler gives us a holistic view, but it’s a holism of uprooting, a map to a total landscape of deracination.

Seidler cites poet George Szirtes’ thoughts and feelings on encountering Brexit, from the point of view of a man who remembers arriving in Britain as a refugee, when a boy. Seidler’s own parents arrived from Vienna, a Jewish family attempting to escape the rise of Nazism.

But Seidler and Szirtes both show us that escape is never full. The escapees are psychologically riven internally, as those who died were riven apart outside the sanctuary they now inhabit. We have the poetry of Paul Celan, Nelly Sachs and now Szirtes to explain how that feels. Sachs is going to be published in a new translation by Andrew Shanks soon and we will cover that here. Its arrival at this point is beyond timely.

Szirtes’ last collection seemed almost psychically attuned to what was to come. As I wrote for Manchester Review of Books, his ‘poems now leer out of the pages with increased significance.’ The title piece of his last collection is about a globalised world that now feels like it is shrinking.

Szirtes’ poem ‘Bartok’ describes how eastern European folk music became transcribed, with all of its atonality for the concert hall, so that those audiences could hear music that ‘screeched and snapped like bullets freshly fired.’ The preceding poem describes the old men of this even older landscape, respectably concealing trenches with corpses in them. The plucked strings and bleary ravaged landscape of Bartok’s String Quartet No.4 then rises to the surface.

My point was that after Brexit, after Trump, this is not just a great collection of poetry – it is – but an essential book of any sort for our newly darkened times, it is an actual map and I fear that we are all going to need it. In Seidler’s book there is a volume to place right next to it on the shelf, whatever genre-clash that creates.

The bitter and resentful xenophobe is also internally split, although to directly equate them would be a horrible insult to those fleeing genocide. But this is the landscape of the human estranged from her or himself per se.

As his argument progresses, Seidler works his way into Brexit in relation to some of his previous themes. Seidler’s work on masculinity seems much less well known than it should be. He was involved with the journal Achilles’ Heel, suggesting that man’s weakness and vulnerability be emphasised and that from this perspective we should join feminism in re-approaching ourselves. Both the xenophobe and incomer should work along those lines, with one another, in an act of mutual recognition and transformation. It seems unlikely, but I don’t think it is impossible.

As we can see, and as I pointed out in my first book, there is nothing particularly national about the new nationalism now being labelled the ‘alt-right’: It is a global anti-globalist phenomena. The contradictions are the places to begin again. The dialectic only begins to move from these cracks in the seamless surfaces.

Almost everyone went to the polls knowing what they were voting for at the same time as nobody went knowing.

Seidler sees the swing to Corbyn, but worries over its investment in sexual and ethnic multiplicity. Seidler asks us to question the legacies of post-structuralism. I can see why, but from my perspective what advances were made under the inappropriate heading of post-structuralism are being jettisoned completely by the new young left.

Their return to a supposed solidity of knowledge that never really existed is as likely to work long-term as the magical leader is likely to satisfy. Postmodernism is also being rejected and one sees why. But there are larger dangers lurking here. There is a big difference between rejecting shallow postmodernity and its irony and embracing the new or what I call in my head neosolid. A ‘common sense’ left will inevitably, unconsciously, enshrine badnesses.

Therefore the changes we are seeing in discourses are across the left and the right. The left are also rejecting the identity politics of the previous epoch, sometimes with real insight and criticality, but in many instances the gleeful torching is little different from that of the right.

Seidler cites Daniel Barenboim’s comments at the Proms before conducting Elgar’s second symphony, that Elgar was really a pan-European composer. For those who know, yes he was, but to many he is a trope of Englishness. An English countryside modelled on Herefordshire as the idyll to be protected from the foreign attacker.

The English countryside as ethnocentric identity, as blood and folk, it is encoded in that sound. The tropescape is always present, it is the dark matter that glues the daytime together. Cultural documents like this are sewed into ideologies through their use in popular film and TV, or in the use of music that sounds very much like it. This is why postmodernism as a diagnosis of the quality of information in our times is not fully dead.

Similarly, Ode To Joy, performed by Barenboim and others after the referendum was perhaps badly picked, as Beethoven’s Ninth has become so freighted with meaning it has entirely submerged. We can now only hear the bubbles and foam as it sinks under its own weight.

Seidler’s final comments speculate on what is opening up. They are dark and dangerous times from anyone’s perspective. John Harris has rightly claimed Brexit as a kind of revolution with no future or precedent. Seidler reprises these arguments well in the book, turning them over carefully and examining them.

But I take issue with some of Harris’s coverage. He described some of the leave voters he encountered on the streets as ‘plain racist’, before separating them cleanly off from those who were concerned with migrants taking jobs and housing. Are they not also racist? I don’t try to answer this question for you, I think it needs to be discussed, although I certainly have a firm view of my own.

Perhaps only one thing is fully certain here and it is that it isn’t possible to neatly separate things. I wrote an article for Open Democracy called ‘False Consciousness, what’s not to dislike? To begin with I asked us to picture the 48% versus 52% of remain versus leave in shades of grey and simply see them as the smoke from a bonfire of rotten sentiments and dead ideas. It is of course possible to state facts, but I still think that mental exercise is worthwhile.

John Harris, although brilliant on many current questions, fears False Consciousness. It means calling out the working classes using a Marxist term. But False Consciousness is to be found at the same co-ordinates as Post-Truth and Neoliberal doublespeak. Post-Truth is Postmodern False Consciousness.

False Consciousness doesn’t mean the working classes are idiots, but it does mean that they have been systematically fed untruth by the media. Harris and many others are already saying this anyway, in one form or another.

False Consciousness is not a declaration that ‘the working classes are stupid’, it never was. There is not some place ‘over there’ where False Consciousness exists, in relation to a place over here where it does not. We are all blind to the full, macro complexity and Seidler understands this.

I also wrote an article for Open Democracy on my father’s occasional racist outbursts, at the same time as he considers himself to not be racist at all. Then there are my research participants. The engineer who works on complex global projects – a man of free movement if ever there was one – but one who claims that the ethnic other does not belong in Britain at all.

‘They don’t belong here’, he explained to me, as if to a child. I wrote about him in my first book, Small Times, Austere Times (Zero, 2014). He is partly of and not of the basic stereotype of the bad leave voter: He lives in the northwest, but he is not stupid or poor. But I am clear that he is a fascist, no other word should be used.

This said, the mix of bitternesses and resentments clouding our vision above this bonfire of the emotions cannot be neatly separated. But we still need to face the full extent of the fire that is now alight in order to try to put it out before it spreads.

We will all get burned doing this. It is going to be painful, but it needs to be done.

I co-authored a paper with Sundas Ali and Ben Gidley. Ali’s data shows a clear correlation with ‘Englishness’ – as testified to in the last census – and leave votes. There are only two serious anomalies, Hull and Luton, Hull perhaps explainable by being along the ‘Brexit coast’.

Yet at the same time, as Rakib Ehsan explains in a LSE post: ‘A number of jurisdictions with large South Asian populations delivered Leave votes’, including Luton (56.5% Leave), Hillingdon (56.4% Leave), Slough (54.3% Leave) and Bradford (54.2% Leave).

All have ‘South Asian populations of 25% and above’. Ehsan explains that it is ‘not unreasonable to think that such Leave votes could not have been delivered without a significant number of Asian voters opting for Brexit.’

A possible reason for this, Ehsan suggests, is ‘that many voters within the British South Asian diaspora don’t feel European’, as ‘Europe’ was never part of their integration process, yet the ‘pro-Commonwealth rhetoric coming from the Leave camp’, might well ‘have pulled on the heartstrings of many South Asian voters.’

Here we reach one of the major questions which it was the purpose of our paper to ask: It is possible to declare a correlation between whiteness and Englishness, due to the clear evidence that cities which voted remain and identify as British also have higher ethnic minority demographics: Does Brexit mean xenophobia?

This analysis is further underscored if we turn to a town such as Rochdale and scrutinise the Brexit vote district-by-district; Sayer (2017) points to the ethnic ‘minority wards’ that ‘bucked the Leave trend’ in Bradford, Oldham, Rochdale, and Walsall, and ‘were among the top 100 60% + Leave districts in the UK’.

‘Brexit’, Sivanandan said not long before he died, ‘means racism’. Yet the new left are bending over backwards now, attempting any kind of elaborate mental gymnastics to deny this, because it means calling the working classes racists.

Well, my family are racists and because of that I am not shy of declaring it. Many among the middle class left writing on the subject try to declare this dimension a mirage. The working classes must be noble and lionised at all costs. This is also false consciousness, with a long trail in the equally fantastical lineages of leftwing heritage: The noble workers that will rise through history? Come on. Really? And I say this as a Marxist.

But Seidler does not suffer from these delusions. He doesn’t come at it from my thorny perspective either, but he turns over the material and views it from different sides, as one might examine a crystal, through different facets.

The media has been a big problem. The right wing tabloids are seen as driving the Brexit ‘leave’ debates, before, during and after the vote.

If we look at newspapers by circulation the right certainly have the power. Newspapers with over one million units of daily circulation are The Sun – 1,666,715; Daily Mail – 1,511,357; Metro – 1,476,956; The Sun on Sunday – 1,375,539; The Mail on Sunday – 1,257,984.

The Guardian only just pips the Daily Record by circulation, although its online journalism is not paywalled and so its reach should not just be read through newspaper sales.

The print newspaper industry has been in decline for a number of years, down at least -4.3% year-on-year. Matthew Smith warns that the ‘National Readership Survey figures for 2016’ are ‘grim reading for those who worry a right-wing media bias.’

They show that ‘collective circulation of right-wing papers is leaving that of the left-wing papers for dust.’

The Mail and Sun are the most read papers in the country and the most rightwing. Jon Burnett cites purported Romanian crimewaves in the British rightwing press and other generated racist panics.

The only fully stable fact here is that racism morphs, it takes new shapes and resists being outlawed at all levels, conscious, semi-conscious and unconscious.

The hope that the xenophobic turn in England is generational and therefore will soon wane is not borne out by current analysis of newspaper circulation. But as the recent Facebook data harvesting scandal shows the battle of online media is only just beginning. Here is a far more slippery, shifting scenery.

Seidler makes the point that journalists are judged by the ‘number of hits their articles receive’, yet in some ways so are academics. The book takes me beyond Brexit into the new cultural and political landscapes that are unfolding before us, at different speeds.

What has happened to universities right across the period leading up to and across the referendum has been as disastrous as what is happening to politics, media, economics and belief. This book is not just about Brexit, it is about The New World. There is too much to cover here, this review would be longer than the book it is dedicated to, so I need to conclude.

I have only one slight criticism and it is that there’s a bit of an over-reliance on the Guardian as a source. In some ways this is understandable considering the media available in Britain, and the arguments I have just made about it, but there it is, you only have to browse the notes to see it.

I don’t think the book is particularly skewed because of it, but the Financial Times contains a lot of hard data. Capitalist swines need strong facts, not strong opinions (which is not the same thing as claiming the FT is ideology-free, far from it).

However, what Seidler brings to this work – something that is mostly absent elsewhere – is not knowing. At the end of the preface, ready to launch into his first substantive chapter, he frames his enquiry partly through it.

What is missing elsewhere is uncertainty and uncertainty – if it can ever be called such a thing in this context – is the ground the subject of ‘Brexit’ stands upon. The book explains the holes in stability as well as the holes in knowledge.

My complaint is nothing in the face of the strength of the analysis here, and in case people have simply stopped listening I’ll say it again:

Everyone should read this book.

– Steve Hanson

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